Author hopes to alter ‘culture of greed’ in college athletics

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

First it was Proposition 48 in the early 1990s. Then regulations were passed in the early 2000s holding schools more accountable for student-athletes’ graduation rates. Is it now time for real reform in college athletes, since student-athletes still seem to lag behind the NCAA, coaches and the schools in terms of financial equity?

“I do want [student-athletes] to get paid,” said Dr. Thabiti Lewis, an associate English professor at Washington State University Vancouver. He recently authored Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America.

In a phone interview, Lewis told the MSR, “College sports to me represent a higher level of capital exploitation.” As a supporting example to his argument, Lewis referred to the NCAA’s new three-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting to televise the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Football teams that played in Bowl Championship Series bowls in 2009 earned up to $18 million for their respective conferences. The NCAA reported that football and basketball brought in $62.3 million in their respective championship games, and $638.9 million in television and marketing.

On the local front, University of Minnesota athletics officials report that they got a multi-million-dollar payday courtesy of the Big Ten Network.

Earlier this summer, in an article in the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine, Lewis strongly suggested six possible remedies that could greatly benefit student-athletes. In our interview, he expounded on three of them:

• Reducing coaches’ salaries (the percentage of coaches making between $1 million and $2 million jumped 15 percent between 2006 and 2008), and making raises and bonuses tied to graduation rates, not wins.

“Redirect…the revenue that comes from reducing these salaries…toward intellectual development in key areas,” recommends Lewis.

• Apply excess revenues from football and basketball to institute “literacy and math practice squads” for secondary schools in poor communities.

“Why not give some of the money for after-school programs for the schools that those kids come from?” Lewis asks.

• Superstar high school basketball athletes should skip college altogether rather than use it as a way station before turning pro. “I would prefer that they didn’t go to any of the colleges — just go to Europe [and] go pro,” Lewis strongly suggests.

He also decries the “AAU [basketball] madness” currently existing around the country in the spring and summertime. “As a kid, I played football, baseball and basketball, and practiced four or five days a week,” Lewis recalls.

These days, that schedule is even more maddening for young “can’t miss” prospects, beginning as early as middle school.

“When do you have time to read a book or practice math problems?” he asks.

Lewis further argues that education these days isn’t as highly valued as it once was in the Black community. “[It] really has been usurped by…dreams of sport as a way of mobility. We live in a society that I don’t think champions the development of one’s intellectual self.”

He also writes that “Not even outrage or hardnosed action has emerged from parents and leaders in Black communities about these deplorable graduation rates.” The MSR two weeks ago ran a front-page story about U of M Black student-athletes’ graduation rates lagging well behind Whites’. No outrage has surfaced locally as yet.

“Let’s tell the kids the litany of other ways of being involved in sport culture without actually being on the court,” says Lewis. One solution he proposes is to stop isolating the so-called “future pros” from other talented folk in the community, resulting in “the lack of contact with Black male mentors [such as] intellectuals and writers. Our kids don’t need another park to shoot ball.”

The professor fully realizes that such proposals may be considered controversial; yet he invites such organizations as the NAACP and the Urban League to join him and “really challenge the NCAA and universities” to change “the current reward system [that] is detrimental to the academic health of student-athletes.” Lewis feels this is especially needed in football and men’s basketball, where nearly two-thirds of the athletes are Black.

While in other ways seen as a vast wasteland, the Black community is considered “Black gold” for college coaches mining for athletic talent, Lewis points out.

“I know somebody would say that I am advocating taking away the opportunity for some young Black kid to [attend] college. My argument would be, yes, that’s true, but many of them who even go to college aren’t getting [or taking full advantage of] that opportunity.”

Asked if his proposals will ever reach college sport’s movers and shakers, Lewis says, “I know it takes real drastic action” to change what he easily calls “a culture of greed” in college athletics. “I just want it to change.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to